The federal government plans to use computer-simulated attacks on the nation’s infrastructure to develop national security defenses.
This week, the National Infrastructure Simulation and Analysis Center is being incorporated into the Bush administration’s Office of Homeland Security.
Until now, it has operated out of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico as a program to help urban planners measure the effects of their decisions in a computer before taking action.
Details of how the center will fit into national security remain secret. But Gordon Johndroe, spokesman for the Office of Homeland Security, described the center as a “valuable asset. ” The program’s director, Darrell Morgeson, is leaving Los Alamos to join the homeland security staff in Washington this week.
Scientists and engineers at the center are putting together a computer simulation of airlines, railroads, gas pipelines, telecommunications and other networks in what the program’s overseers call an “acupuncture map” of the nation’s critical infrastructures. The goal is to determine the best responses to attacks or breakdowns of the systems that keep the United States working.
“The idea is that everything now is so interconnected that we don’t really know what happens when some accident or mishap occurs in one place that could affect something else, ” said Michael Anton, National Security Council spokesman.
He cited the July 19, 2001, CSX Transportation train derailment and fire in a Baltimore tunnel as an example. The fire, which was fueled by dangerous chemicals, burned out fiber optic cables running through the tunnel. Not only was railroad traffic along the East Coast disrupted for days, but the Internet also shut down in parts of the Midwest until the fiber optic cable connections were restored.
An infrastructure map could be particularly important for the Washington region, which is a hub for airlines, Internet traffic, urban transit, railroads and highways.
“A lot of fiber optic cable goes through Northern Virginia, about 55 percent of the world’s Internet traffic, ” said Josh Levi, policy director for the Northern Virginia Technology Council. Among the corporate residents is America Online.
Currently, he said, determining choke points of critical infrastructure is easily done by “evil-intentioned people.”
The center’s headquarters at Los Alamos National Laboratory shares facilities with the nation’s nuclear weapons research and development.
Early successes with computer modeling persuaded the Transportation Department to expand the program to include airlines, pipelines and other infrastructure. In recent months, the effects of a terrorist attack have played more prominently in the laboratory’s computer equations.
“The September 11 attack focused our attention more aggressively in this direction, ” said Nancy Ambrosiano, spokeswoman for Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Mortimer Downey, deputy transportation secretary during the Clinton administration, recommended that details of the computer model remain a closely guarded national secret. Otherwise, it could become “a road map for terrorists, ” he told The Washington Times.
“I don’t think you want to post the detailed location of all the pipelines on the Internet, ” Mr. Downey said.
The September 11 failure of New York City’s telephone system demonstrated the importance of the map, he said.
“In the first World Trade Center blast, one of the unintended outcomes was all the telephone service in Lower Manhattan went out, ” Mr. Downey said. “People said, ‘how could that be, there were three telephone carriers.’ It turned out all three of them were going through one point right next to the World Trade Center.”
Some industry representatives are worried the infrastructure map could turn into another government program that tells them how to run their businesses.
“The telecom infrastructure in this country for the most part is owned by the private sector, ” said Dan Bart, a senior vice president for the Telecommunications Industry Association. “The owners would be concerned that how they protect their infrastructure is their business.”